Some books gain an iconic status because their popularity and importance seem to transcend time and culture. Works by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway populate this list. More recent contributions to the list come from names like George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and J. K. Rowling. Certain books stand the test of time and occupy a place on a bookshelf labeled “Timeless Truths.”

Such are the writings of C.S. Lewis. We are in the process of setting aside a few weeks this fall to look at a handful of his contributions to literature. We have browsed through “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Abolition of Man” and “The Screwtape Letters,” and today we turn our attention to “Mere Christianity.”

The classic theological book was published in 1952 and was adapted from a series of talks that Lewis made for the BBC Radio between 1941 and 1944 during World War II. The transcripts of the broadcasts originally appeared as three separate pamphlets, The Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. In a preface to one of the editions, Lewis talked about his desire to avoid doctrines that were constantly argued, but instead to focus on the core beliefs of the Christian faith.

“Mere Christianity” has gone on to enjoy an iconic status. In 2006, Christianity Today produced a list of the most influential books since 1945, naming Lewis’ masterpiece third on the list. Charles Colson, imprisoned for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, credited “Mere Christianity” as an instrumental force in his conversion. Successful Christian authors J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, John Piper and Timothy Keller point to this book as an influencer of their own writing.

Again, let’s look at three quotations from this work, and consider their importance for our world today. The first quote for us to examine is one that became a part of Lewis’ signature.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him (Jesus): I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.

Lewis’ apologetic trilemma — often described as “Lunatic, Liar or Lord” — presents but three possible answers to the extraordinary life of Jesus. The argument has been seen throughout church history. The famed writer G.K. Chesterton used a similar process in his book “The Everlasting Man,” which Lewis mentioned as the second most influential book upon his own life.

The trilemma became associated with Lewis because of the broadcasts and the book “Mere Christianity.” While the premise is not airtight, its impact can best be understood by the number of opposing websites, like Atheism 101, which dedicate a webpage on how to respond to Lewis’ reasoning.

Although those with more expertise in logic might analyze it differently, Lewis’ argument appears to be structured:

1. If Jesus were not Lord, he would either be a liar or a lunatic.

2. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic.

3. Therefore, Jesus must be Lord.

Logical arguments are normally evaluated by “Are the terms clear? Is the logic valid? Are the premises true?” Although technically the argument is faulty because there could be other options than just two in the first premise, the process points us toward understanding the importance of the choice. Either Jesus was who it is said he was, or the alternative is substantial. There appears to be no middle ground.

Another quotation from the book weaves together the concepts of our theology and our behavior.

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.

Faith should not just be the intellectual acceptance of doctrines or theories, but it should affect how we live each day. How I respond to people — even people who have wronged me — should be dictated by the core of my belief system. As a Christian, the combination of beliefs and behavior is “Mere Christianity.”

If the “Golden Rule” for relationships is “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” then forgiveness as you have been forgiven is the foundational belief. Our tendency is to cling to the “wrongs,” perhaps thinking that keeping it will give us an advantage over the other person. In reality, it actually keeps us at a disadvantage.

The final quotation for consideration is appropriate as our season moves into a time of Thanksgiving.

We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them. But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.

We are all seeking answers to our pressing questions. Everyone puts their faith in someone. Lewis is challenging us to be careful in whom we place our faith. People, even those who appear to be the best and the wisest, are nothing more than dust and sand. Place your faith in someone who is more than fleeting sand, more than just a moment in time.

The greatest appeal of Lewis’ classic work “Mere Christianity” is that the author invites the reader to join him on a journey that is fulfilling because it expects us to follow.

Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com.

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